User Interface Design
The Francophilia Gazette has just launched, and it is simply awesome.
Resize your window and/or zoom in and out and watch what happens.Tweet
I bought the new iPhone 3G S today. On launch day. I know…
I skipped the iPhone 3G, so the feature-gap with my G1 iPhone made the upgrade worth it. The Geekette, bless her geeky soul, encouraged me to go for it (she should be getting the old iPhone, which is better than her old Nokia, but I know that was only a secondary consideration…).
Nevertheless, I’ll share a few impressions in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):
- The 3G S is very noticeably a lot much faster, in every respect. The UI is like liquid butter (as opposed to just plain butter).
- The Maps + Compass combo is incredible (or will be on the rare occasions that I’m somewhere that I don’t know like the back of my hand). The way the pins on the Map move in 3D space while the map rotates to show your direction is worth it in itself, though.
- The touch to focus feature of the camera makes a world of difference. And I’m sure I can find a use for video recording (and the Video Stabilization feature in iMovie ’09).
- I called the person with the weirdest last name I know (mine) using the (French version of) Voice control. Worked like a charm.
- Even though MMS and Tethering are both available on launch in France, I haven’t tried either yet. Might be useful in a pinch (<— iPhone humor).
Finally, I thought I would indulge in a frivolous little experiment:
“Still life with cashews and guitar pick and iPhone 3G S” shot with original iPhone
“Still life with cashews and guitar pick and original iPhone” shot with iPhone 3G S
Confusing, isn’t it?Tweet
I installed iPhone OS 3.0 a little ahead of schedule (ahem) on my 1st generation iPhone 2G.
You see, the iPhone application launchpad was designed before the iPhone SDK, the App Store, and 50,000 apps hit the cloud. While it’s fun to flick the screens left and right, it’s a royal pain in the ass to rearrange your app icons in a meaningful way, if like me, you have 7 or 8 screens worth of apps (x 16 apps per page…)
When Apple previewed iPhone 3.0 a few months ago, I was hoping for radical change in this regard, and the Spotlight Search feature seemed like a lame response.
I was wrong.
After playing with iPhone OS 3.0 for a short while, I think I can safely say that I couldn’t care less about my giant messy heap of half-sorted apps anymore. It takes fewer taps to swipe left from the main home screen to reveal the search keyboard, type a couple of letters, and tap the app, email, calendar event, song or contact of interest, than to flick through the Home pages.
And that means I’m a happier iPhone geek.
Update: I noticed that when you’re on the main home screen, you can press on the physical Home button to go to the Spotlight Search screen, and back.Tweet
Germany is known for its quality design and signage, and rightly so. France? Not so much (as anybody who’s landed at Charles De Gaulle airport will tell you).
Still, the baffling public transportation ticket vending machines in Cologne, Germany, that the Geeks are confronted with this week, stand in stark contrast to the Paris Metro machines, which I have always thought have the coolest UI.
Basically, you’ve got a red “Cancel” button, a big rolly selection thingy, and a green “OK” button.
Turn the rolly thingy to highlight the big graphics on the screen, hit OK. It’s as simple as it gets.
Or just run to the machine and turn the rolly thingy as fast as you can for kicks, like my kids used to do when they were small.Tweet
This post has been brewing for a while…
It’s about a logo.
SFR is the second-largest mobile phone carrier in France. They have stores everywhere, they advertise like crazy, and they are folding other brands under the SFR banner.
Which is probably why they decided to redesign their logo. The decision was probably long overdue.
Consider their old logo:
It’s pretty damn ugly and old-fashioned. The horrible bezel. The ugly lettering.
This is one of the richest, high-tech corporations in France (ISP, mobile phones etc.). They had to do something.
So they did this:
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
On the face of it, yes, it looks more modern.
But it sends shivers down my spine. Because it is one of the worst logos I have ever seen in my life.
I won’t comment on the font. Although I certainly could.
Consider the drop shadow behind the letters: Uneven, random depth, thickness and intensity.
Now compare that to the drop shadow behind the big red square: different intensity, different distance.
Now consider the shadow and lighting effects inside the red square. Do you see it? No, not the butt-ugly shiny reflection in the lower right corner.
That’s right, the drop shadows on the letters and the outside of the square suggest a light source coming from the top right…
…while the shadows and highlights inside the square suggest a stronger light source coming from the bottom right.
I wasn’t able to find out who designed the logo (I didn’t search that hard), but I hope it wasn’t a professional design firm. Because it is worse than PC/PowerPoint “art”.
It makes me literally ill. It is disturbing not only to the eye, but to my inner ear. It ruins my day, it ruins my faith in humanity, it makes me ashamed to belong to the same species as the person(s) who designed it, and those who chose it as their emblem.
And I just had to get it off my chest.Tweet
But I’ve just gone through two seemingly unrelated but telling episodes, that have made me revisit this existential question (I apologize for this narcissistic post, but hey, what are blogs for?)
First of all, this summer, I came to the aid of someone who is near and dear to me, who urgently needed a design for a website she was having developed.
While I’m not a real website designer, I believe I do have my moments. I first told her I couldn’t do it, but then came up with a basic idea, that I fleshed out, and that satisfied me on so many levels that I feel embarrassed by just how proud I was of the result. I thought it was a near-total success, both graphically, ergonomically, in terms of usability and clarity and fitness to the purpose and to the target demographics.
The developer, on the other hand, begged to differ. He was appalled, even horrified, and said that it was his duty as a professional to warn against using such a non-standard, off-putting, design.
The parallel with typical reactions to my music is obvious to me now. The design was, in my view, only slightly non standard, which was what gave it personality, among other ingredients. But the placement and usability of every element on every page was carefully thought out, and weighed in light of impatient and inexperienced end-users. There was virtually no doubt in my mind that the slightly non-standard aspects would improve usability, not worsen it.
In a different context, I had also previously done a quick photoshop collage for the near and dear person I was trying to help, in which I had stuck a crude banner+logo on a screen-shot of an existing, competing (and very bland) site.
She was stuck between a rock and a hard place (me and the developer), so I suggested she send this crude collage, and my new, snazzy, perfect design ;) to people familiar with the project to get their feedback. The result wasn’t even close. The crappy fake was preferred 10 to 1 over my sublime, haute-couture design ;) .
Now for the second recent revealing incident. Last weeks’ Geeks In Love episode was really a political cartoon in disguise, about the financial collapse and the MacPain campaign. As a lark, and given what I thought was a broader appeal than usual, I submitted the strip to Reddit’s “comics” feed. People then started to look at it and to “upvote” the strip. I got over 200 visits in a few hours, with the strip holding steady in the top 10 cartoons of the moment, but by the end of the day, at least as many people had “downvoted” (you can’t get negative points on Reddit). So once again, enough people disliked it enough to vote it down. They could ignore it and do nothing. But no. They had to express their displeasure in no uncertain terms (the political bias on Reddit is very much to the left, so I’m dismissing the possibility that I was voted down by outraged creationists or Palin supporters).
Once again, I was witnessing the same pattern. I thought I was proposing something of quality, with a wider appeal than usual, and was proven wrong.
So there you have it.
It doesn’t matter what I create: music, web designs, cartoons.
It doesn’t matter who I create for: myself or others.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s highbrow, lowbrow or commercial art or entertainment.
It doesn’t matter weather it is formally slightly unusual or completely familiar and standard.
The result is always the same. A few individuals rave about it, and large numbers of people are put off.
I’m amused and even a little proud, but also humbled to see that I seem to have an artistic sensibility that transcends the particular boundaries of different “art forms”.
It’s also obvious to me that there is nothing I can do about it.
Which in the end is a liberating feeling, even though it means that what I do, despite an audience beyond my wildest dreams, will never emerge from obscurity.Tweet
Since I’m on a curmudgeonly streak, I thought I’d publish, once and for all and for posterity, my feelings about automobiles.
First, a little history.
As a child, I used to systematically puke in them.
When I began to look at the world with a critical eye, I quickly came to feel that cars were not only nauseating, but also foul-smelling, loud, dangerous eyesores. Every last one of them.
My dad loved to drive them, my brother couldn’t wait to be old enough to do the same.
I actually did fine without knowing how to drive during the first 35 years of my life. Living in Brussels, New York and Paris meant owning a car would have been an expensive liability rather than a convenience.
But then my son was born, and he liked nothing more than cars. When he was less than 2 years old, we’d sit at a bus stop in Paris to watch the cars go by, and he’d call out the different makes and models. I’m pretty sure his first word must have been “Twingo” (I don’t blame him. It’s a great-sounding word).
And I thought he would be really embarrassed to find out I couldn’t drive, and I didn’t want him to feel humiliated among his peers.
So I eventually learned how to drive.
During my first lesson, the instructor told me to start the car and drive off. I looked at him in disbelief, and proceeded to explain that I didn’t know anything about cars or how they worked (this was in Paris, where traffic is crazy, and where cars have manual transmissions, since frogs don’t drive automatics). I told him to think of me as an Amazon Indian who had just come out of the jungle. He unearthed a questionnaire for rare specimens such as myself, and asked me to answer a bunch of multiple choice questions to assess my level of automobile-related knowledge.
I scored a perfect zero. (Actually, I seem to remember that I had a negative score).
I didn’t know what any of the pedals were for. When the patient instructor explained how the little Fiat Punto we were in worked, I couldn’t believe it. I literally thought he was pulling my leg.
I’ve now been driving (rental cars) for close to 10 years. Manual transmissions in Europe, automatic ones in the US. I’m not too lousy at it. I’m not scared or nervous anymore, but I don’t enjoy it. Not one bit.
Because if you’re an Amazon Indian fresh out of the jungle, analyzing things with fresh eyes from a usability standpoint, manual transmissions are about as absurd as nostril-powered bicycles or pastrami-sandwich roller-skates, barbed-wire superconducting flying underwear, or Segways.
I’ve heard and I understand all the technical and other arguments from car afficionados about the superiority of manual transmissions in terms of responsiveness, or safety when you happen to be driving down Mount Everest and need to downshift into third gear.
OK. Why not?
But if you really want a manual transmission, for when you really, truly need that fine control, deft and adept super-pilot that you are, then ask yourself: is this the best UI you can think of? Is there any reason at all to resort to clutch pedals, and engines that stall? Can’t you think of many simpler alternatives, like pushing a lever forward or backward to change gears? (From what I’ve heard, SmartCars have a system like that).
Thare are all these jokes on the Internet about if cars worked like Microsoft Windows, some of which are pretty funny and clever.
But wait! You know what? Cars with manual transmissions already do!
In Europe, all of this incredible engineering has gone into making engines super fuel-efficient, into aerodynamics, materials, safety, tire technology, etc.
But you still have to do the Fred Flintsone routine with your feet to get the fucking thing moving!
There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for this surrealist, fucked-up, counterintuitive, user-hostile system to have endured this long.
Unless, of course, most drivers (in Europe at least) are resigned masochists who don’t mind suffering needlessly due to abysmal design.
Sorry for wasting your time.Tweet
Check out this demo of the Tenori-On, a new electronic musical instrument, based on an innovative UI. It is well thought out and actually seems usable, allowing for an interesting mix of controlled music-making and random elements.
A much simplified version is apparently due to arrive for the iPhone.Tweet
When the first iPhone came out a year ago, it was criticized (among other things) for the lack of third-party apps. They weren’t allowed, except for so-called Web-apps, which were “just” Web pages.
So hackers unlocked the iPhone, developers developed unsanctioned third-party apps, and eventually, Apple released a software development kit for writing native iPhone apps (a rather condensed history of the situation).
With last week’s rollout of the new iPhone 3G came the opening of the new AppStore, available to all iPhones, provided they are upgraded to the new 2.0 OS. Hundreds of apps are available. Games, productivity, social networking, etc, etc. Many are free. Many are cheap (less than $10 (chump change in Euros)).
I never unlocked my 1st generation iPhone. I didn’t want to brick it. I didn’t want some dumb application crashing my phone, and more importantly, no third-party application appealed to me enough to take the risk.
But in the last week, I’ve downloaded quite a few apps. Mostly freebies, although I did buy a few too.
I suppose it’s unfair to criticize, because these are 1.0 apps on a brand new platform. But I have to say I am mostly dismayed by what I’ve tried. Apps that have been highly anticipated and praised just crash miserably and/or suffer from horrendous usability problems. Not to mention the fact that they are usually functionally no better than equivalent WebApps. It’s safe to say that I’ve uninstalled about 80% of the apps I tried.
I also bought a somewhat OK Solitaire game, Platinum Solitaire, if you can overlook the 10 clics (taps) and animated logos and cartoon characters with annoying voices that you have to endure before you can even start a game (and it also crashes randomly). In fact, there were several solitaires and I bought this one by mistake (which is very easy to do on the App Store). I asked for a refund, which was granted (“exceptionally”).
So far, the only other App that stands out (paid or free), apart from the previously mentioned Tuner & Piano, is a beautiful little 3D MahJong game Moolight Mahjong Lite, which outshines pretty much anything else I’ve tried. It is simple, straightforward, stable, and fully takes advantage the iPhones multitouch capabilities.
I’ve also noticed that my battery seems to drain faster than it did before, even when I’m not using the iPhone. I don’t know for sure, and I don’t know if it is due to some misbehaved App (in theory, they are sandboxed, but who knows?) or some official feature of the new 2.0 OS…
Still, there is no doubt in my mind that the iPhone is the only major new computing platform to emerge in years, if not decades, and it is an incredible platform at that. So hopefully, the third-party App situation will improve over time, as developers learn how to code for the platform, and users start being a little more demanding and discriminating.Tweet